[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
Showing a completely deserted city center is an eerie trick. When it happens near the beginning of the Netflix series “Alice in Borderland,” it happens in broad daylight, with a bustling Tokyo empty and echoing. Even setting aside the real-world analogues of the not-too-distant past, there’s something about the way the series lets three characters bathe in that silence as they run across deserted highway lanes in search of anyone else who might still be left.
Before that trio gets a chance to really parse out why they’re seemingly alone in this alternate population-sparse reality, things take an even bigger turn: Entering a mysterious building locks them into a survival game with simple rules and a complex path to getting out alive.
This “win or be killed” premise is a major part of what propelled “Squid Game” to its meteoric popularity over the last few months. The idea of being dropped into an escalating series of challenges without bearings or a safety net is an efficient shortcut to life-or-death stakes. While it’s a little unfair to directly compare the two shows — “Alice in Borderland” has its own way of addressing what happens to societies under duress, even if doesn’t take quite the overt political tack that “Squid Game” does — it’s hard not to see the two connected in premise if not always in form.
One of the greatest gifts that either show gives its audience is an excuse (in some cases, almost a demand) to be better observers. In “Alice in Borderland,” the system of games and challenges and objectives grows more sophisticated, as seen through the eyes of Arisu (Kento Yamazaki). Much as the players have to try to outthink those putting them through physical and psychological endurance tests, there’s a kind of battle of wits happening between viewer and storyteller. Some of these puzzles — drawn from Haro Aso’s manga — deal with spatial awareness. Others play on assumptions based on word choice. A few have the kind of merciless nihilist streak where the outcome is pure chance. There’s enough of each to make for a show that avoids falling into a repetitive rut (one that it will hopefully continue to avoid in the eventual Season 2).
As Arisu settles into this world of nightly skirmishes and brain teasers, he finds that he’s not the only one working to stay alive, unable to escape the loop. These challenges give director Shinsuke Sato a chance to play around with scale, ranging from claustrophobic rooms to challenges set in venues so vast that not even finely plotted teamwork can fully cover it. Happiness isn’t exactly abundant in the world of “Alice in Borderland,” but the show finds enough breaks in the misery to give Arisu and his eventual new companions a chance at something other than the dim environment of a vacant global capital.
There are times when “Alice in Borderland” gets close to buckling under its sheer scope. What saves it is a clear attention to logistics in this world, even when the characters inside are still trying to crack the many codes within. There’s also an uneasy tension between “figure out how to live” vs. “don’t die,” but when the show shifts its focus to who gets and keeps power in this reality, “Alice in Borderland” stays more than just a game.